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S.M.a.r.t Column: Five Saving Historic Santa Monica

Our beloved City is surrounded by many threats, from sea level rise to homelessness, to housing affordability, to cancerous overdevelopment, to  crime, to the four apocalyptic collapses: water supply, school population, municipal finances, and mobility (add in your own favorite threat here). It can feel hopeless as to how a citizen can get any leverage to solve these intractable interactive problems, many of which are national or even global in scale. This perceived lack of agency naturally leads to citizen anger, cynicism, paranoia,  and depression. Who wouldn’t be depressed by that litany of problems? The continuous drip of those feelings erodes the body politic so that as nice as the City looks on the outside, it is really suffering on the inside.

Fortunately our tiny City, of about 92,000 residents, already has five major local organizations actively working to preserve its character and improve its interior and exterior quality of life. In one way or another they are planning for our City’s future by mining the best from its past. Essentially a City that does not know its past is not ready for its future.  

Unless we understand how we got to this point, how our ancestors surmounted significant problems (wars, economic depressions, etc. ) in the past, we are ill prepared to face the challenges of tomorrow which include the intractable problems (racism, misogyny to name just a few) of today. A city that suffers from Alzheimers (erasure of its past) is already doomed because it has lost its historically developed problem solving DNA. It has become a zombie city, repetitively stumbling around with inadequate old solutions to new or existing problems. 

The five voluntary organizations listed below are just a sample of local organizations preserving something essential for our City’s future.  There are, of course, many other organizations, larger (eg. Sierra Club, SMRR) and smaller (eg. SMCLC, SMa.r.t.) including individuals, that are doing similar or parallel problem  solving things and thereby preparing us to face the even larger problems which we know are headed our way: 

HEAL THE BAY: https://healthebay.org/ (CEO Tracy Quinn). We are here because of the beach. Tourists come for our beach. Our streets are numbered from the beach. Our road signs all have a yellow stripe representing the beach. Our largest hotels are on the beach. Our visitors arriving down Wilshire are greeted by a blue wave sculpture and the Pier is our Eiffel Tower (our pier is actually about 50% longer than the Tower is tall).  Santa Monica has always been about the beach.  

When the Tongva Indians fished along our shores, harvested the plants and animals of the chaparral, and captured the migratory birds of what is now Marina Del Rey, there was no pollution problem in our bay and beaches. The human impact was definitely present but relatively minor and reversible. Two centuries later, a metropolis of  ten million people parachuted in and is spewing all its trash, sewage and detritus (including rusting DDT barrels) into the waters we fish, surf and bathe. What could possibly go wrong?

So 38 years ago Heal the Bay stepped up and started issuing report cards for beach pollution, organizing beach clean ups which now gather upwards of 22,000 lb. of trash per event and eventually they started managing a small public aquarium at the foot of the Pier among other aquatic initiatives. They have also expanded their portfolio to include inland watersheds that are often the source of the pollution that dumps into our bay.  Finally they have become, through, no fault of their own, on the front lines of sea level rise which has become a major issue for the entire City: can a beach city survive without its beach?

MUSEUM OF FLYING (https://www.museumofflying.org (Director of Operations Steve Benesch, $50 membership). Moving from the water to the air, the Museum of Flying was started 45 years ago from the memorabilia of Douglas Aircraft’s founder Donald Douglas Sr. Ten years later they opened a superb new facility on the north side of the runway that included actual aircraft and runway access. Because of financial constraints, in 2008 the museum moved back to the south side of the runway in a smaller facility where it is today, headlined by the DC3 monument (see photo above: the plane that taught America to fly).  

Apart from its massive role in aircraft production during WW2 and birthing the jet passenger era with the DC-8, Douglas played an incredibly beneficial role in Santa Monica’s history by providing solid employment for generations of workers, engineers, fabricators and specialists many of whom lived in Sunset Park. Its presence helped our tourist dependent (and vulnerable) City survive the ravages of the great 1930s depression and the periodic recessions till 1963 when Douglas’s planes became too big for our short runway (The City Council refused to allow extending the runway). 

The important lesson here is that Douglas Aircraft, for our City, was the equivalent of getting say Facebook or Amazon to locate their headquarters in your city. Aviation was the pinnacle of technology between 1920 and 1970: the manufacturing equivalent of AI or super computers for today. At this time we have not yet replaced their economic equivalent but it reminds us to keep looking for those recession resistant industries to buffer our City from the inevitable roller coaster of a tourist dependent economy.   

Should the airport be closed sometime after 2029, apart from the 5% hole in the City’s budget, and the loss of tax revenues from the approximate annual $360mil regionally generated by airport-related business, there will still be seven traces left (if you know where to look) of Douglas’s heroic era: Douglas Park, the landmarked beacon at the east end of the runway, the landmarked navigation rose at the west end of the runway, the airplane in the City Hall mural, the Aero cinema, Douglas’s home on Woodacres Road,  and of course the Museum of Flying. That museum tells the story of when Santa Monica was on the cutting edge of a key industry, and reminds us to keep looking for today’s version. 

CALIFORNIA HERITAGE MUSEUM https://californiaheritagemuseum.org/ (Toby Smith Executive Director, $35 membership). But life is not all just the environment or technology, preserving heritage and culture is equally valuable for a successful City. This is where the Heritage Museum performs a valuable and unique service in Santa Monica but also statewide. Their collection and shows of art works, paintings, posters, ceramics, photographs, sculptures, assemblages and memorabilia reflects the cosmos of our artists’s concerns and their visions. 

Located in an approximately 140-year-old landmarked Victorian building that was moved to its current location in 1977, this museum is part of a historic complex that includes a restaurant (The Victorian) and, on Sundays, the farmer’s market. Visiting the CHM is a perfect Sunday afternoon excursion.

SANTA MONICA HISTORY MUSEUM:  https://santamonicahistory.org (Rob Schwenker, Executive Director,  Individual membership $75). Located in the north-east corner of the Santa Monica Main Public Library,  it is an incredible collection of over 600,000 documents maps, photos, diaries, books, and memorabilia that document and preserve our City’s past. Just to make it clear that museums aren’t just about the musty past, SMHM is currently showing two exhibits that have direct relevance to the challenges of today. There is the current exhibit, in collaboration with the Santa Monica Conservancy,  called “Unhoused: A history of Housing in Santa Monica” which speaks to the important issues of housing and the unhoused in our City. And also there is an exhibit, in collaboration with the Quinn Research Center, about Vernon Brunson a seminal black poet, playwright, organizer,  and columnist for the  California Eagle. This exhibit, among other things,  speaks to the many missing and untold stories of minorities that exist hidden in our City.  

Additionally the SMHM is buttressed on one hand by the used book store, and on the other hand the Public Library which has its own substantial collection of documents, photos, catalogues etc.. The used book store (also on the ground floor of the main library) is a book lover’s nirvana that sells old and used books, (many in excellent condition) whose proceeds go to buy new books for the Public Library. This excellent example of recycling, run by Friends of Santa Monica Library, is also a place where you can volunteer directly to help the City reopen its shuttered libraries which are really a financial casualty of “long covid”. The SMHM acts, in essence, as our own personal Smithsonian Society.  

SANTA MONICA CONSERVANCY https://smconservancy.org/ ( President Tom Cleys, $45 membership) This 20+ year old organization is the newest of these preservation organizations with over 300 dues paying members. It is headquartered in a 1897 Landmarked Shotgun House that was moved to its current location in 2014. The Museum of Flying which has hopscotched the runway, the California Heritage Museum, and the SM Conservancy Shotgun House are all the beneficiaries of relocations: the Shotgun House in fact was moved 3 times before it found its permanent location across from the Landmarked Carnegie Ocean Park Library. In Santa Monica even the homes are homeless: they wander around.

The Conservancy runs three regular programs (the Downtown Walking Tours, the docenting at the Annenberg Beach House and at the Shotgun House). In addition they do a plethora of historic pod casts, salons, landmarking advocacy, educational programs and thematic walking tours. In a sense, to use a computer analogy, the SM History Museum preserves the software (memorabilia) while the SM Conservancy preserves the hardware (buildings). Because one of the key roles of the Conservancy is the preservation and rehabilitation of historic buildings, it will be involved in many upcoming challenging battles created by the buildout of our 9000 new units required by Sacramento by 2029. That buildout will inevitably involve ripping out a huge part of our urban fabric, threatening many historic resources. 

None of these five organizations require the preservation of every single snowy plover, propellor, photo, postcard, or property. But enough have to survive to tell our story and someone needs to be there to actually tell the story. And that’s where you come in. These five organizations cover the environment, aviation, art, history, and architecture. Thus, they offer something of interest for everyone. If you are concerned about your City’s future, these five volunteer driven organizations are a perfect vehicle to participate in preserving the future authenticity of your City. If you are already a member of one, Thank you! But consider becoming a member of another: they are all working toward the same goal as we should all be. 

By Mario Fonda-Bonardi, AIA 

S.M.a.r.t Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow

Thane Roberts, Architect, Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect & Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect & Planning Commissioner, Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE Marie Standing. Jack Hillbrand AIA 

For previous articles, see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing

in Opinion
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